Interview with Thollem McDonas: The soul is what propels us, and the intellect helps steer: Video, New CD cover

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Thollem McDonas. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Thollem McDonas: – Hello, thanks for your interest in me and my work. I grew up in the Bay Area, primarily San José. My mom was a piano teacher and my dad played in piano bars for years. That’s how my parents met. I didn’t know my dad so well growing up, but his music definitely had an influence on me as well as the classical training I got growing up with my mom. For me, it was expected that I would study music. When I was thirteen, I remember waking up with overwhelming waves of ideas of my own and I had the technique and knowledge to realize them. While learning all the works of the composers of the last 300 years, I remember at one point thinking that they were people, and I’m a people, so therefore I could be a composer. But really, I had been composing and improvising for as long as I can remember.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

TM: – My sound has always been an amalgamation of my experiences throughout my life. Sound represents values as much as it expresses individual personality, feelings in the moment and cultural association/identity. I also believe that we are more than individual beings with our own sound. In fact, we are sound. We are the universe and everything we can experience or comprehend. I am but a momentary happenstance that is a vehicle for a spark that is experienced by other vehicles for sparks. All that said, as I identify as Thollem, this flesh and blood and particular summation of experiences and values, my sound was directly informed by my mother as a classical pianist as well as the myriad of sounds I had the privilege to experience growing up in the Bay Area. I spent a lot of time at Kuumbwa Jazz Club in Santa Cruz as a teenager where I heard McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Elvin Jones, Toshiko Akiyoshi and many others.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

TM: – For me rhythm doesn’t begin or end, it is a constant river that ebbs and flows in macro and micro levels perpetually and eternally.

JBN: – How do you prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

TM: – I fully embrace the idea of being consistently influenced. The ideal is to enter into a conscious covenant with the world where I have faith in my abilities to examine it all and decode the value and virtue and joy and challenges and passion of what I experience and express. I rarely have a particular result in mind. I’m not so interested, for the most part, in the rigors of style or idiom and I believe that I’m most vibrant as an artist when I am facing the world as it is in the moment, in a battle and a dance, always sharing dna with the forces of life of which I am one.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

TM: – I get energy from music, so the music prepares me, gives me stamina. Years ago, I decided I wanted to erase the barrier between performance and everyday life. It’s all a performance and music is life, often the part of life where I feel most comfortable. Now and then I succumb to the seduction of ritual (this statement has many layers, so I hope readers read into it), and I put on a virtual robe, but mostly for the sake of others. I think we can often mistake ritual for substance. And we have too many pedestals, missing out on the marvelous moment of every breath. Just because we’ve given weight to something doesn’t mean it really carries that weight. Every morning I wake up, I am benefiting from the preparations of my entire existence up to that point, as I am preparing for the next moment as well as the ultimate death of this carnation.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2020: Thollem, Parker, Cline – Gowanus Sessions II, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

TM: – I love this question! And I must say that first and foremost I love the people that I am creating this music with and all the people involved, from the engineers to Cork Marcheschi and Reid Johnston for providing that artwork, Steve and ESP-disk, Bernard for creating ESP. I love that this record was recorded the same day as Gowanus Sessions I, released 7 years later and still feels as timely and timeless. Last I listened to it I felt what a joy it was to explore sound with these two amazing musicians. The breadth of what they bring to the experience is mind-boggling, and I’m humbled and thrilled that they were both as excited about it as I was. I do believe that we have a unique sound as a trio and I believe that the result expresses a lot of who we all are in ways that each of us had not explored previously to this extent.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

TM: – For me, they are compliments to each other. One or the other may lead the way, sometimes it’s a fight. Too much balance is boring. And certainly too much intellect can be as well. Maybe too much soul (is that possible?) can make things messy, but this can be important in the process as well. Soul is what propels us, and the intellect helps steer, or lights the way, or checks the map.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

TM: – It is important to me to connect with audiences and I also see my work in collaboration with audiences. It’s impossible for me to play what someone wants if I don’t want to, if I’m not compelled to, but I have many interests and many people inside myself so am always curious about new directions and possibilities. If an audience brings new music out of me, then that can be very satisfying for myself as well as the audience. Of course, it depends from project to project. Some work needs to be realized without influence from others, and other music absolutely needs to live and breathe within a community.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

TM: – Today is the 2nd anniversary of André StJames’ death. He was a great friend, musician and absolutely irreplaceable in his community of Portland, Oregon. I was just thinking about our album that was put out by ESP a month prior to his unexpected death and where we recorded it. We were able to do a short tour to support the album, with more planned in the future, the future that never happened. Our last concert was at The Royal Room in Seattle. A really beautiful night that I will cherish until the day I die!

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

TM: – I think the standards will always be living creatures as they are continually reinterpreted by new artists. And I also believe that Jazz goes way beyond the standards. Perhaps each generation needs to re-establish what Jazz means to them, hopefully within an historical framework, of course. But in order for young people to be interested on a significant scale it has to be relevant for them, which means they also need to be making it, and there are many who are. Of course, the times were very different when the standards were written. But what makes them standards is that they have a timelessness and universal appeal that both expresses who we are now as well as connecting us to different times and places.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

TM: – I am a momentary ball of energy gathered miraculously in the improbable now in the midst of eternity. I don’t know if there is a meaning, and I’m ok with that. In fact, we may be missing the ‘point’ when we’re in search of meaning…Spirit is what sustains us and thrusts us forward, It is the great equalizer and teaches us empathy towards others. Music is nourishment, it is a healing force, bringing us closer to each other and closer to our source.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

TM: – It’s a strange to time to answer this question, obviously. So much is on hiatus or in upheaval. I think, however, that often we put too much emphasis and attention on a few musicians and locations when we should broaden our scope more. There’s so much amazing music happening in little nooks and crannies by people most of us will never know about. This has been some of the most rewarding aspects of my itinerant lifestyle: being able to experience little scenes with percolating sonic energy. Sometimes it moves away, sometime it dissipates, but there is always energy boiling underneath the surface.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

TM: – RIght now I’m listening to a ton of recordings I made last year in collaboration with musicians along my travels in Greece, Italy, the U.S. and Canada for a Bandcamp series. Since I’ve lived on the road for so many years, I’ve had the pleasure to taking in many live sets and that is primarily how I listen to music. I’m in New Mexico right now, where there are a few great radio stations. I love driving around the desert listening to the radio. The other day I heard Yusef Lateef’s ‘Quarantine’, a Maceo Parker tune from Funk Overload, Bernard Purdy’s “Changes” and The Meter’s ‘The World Is A Little Under The Weather’ (I think that is the title). I also listen to the sounds here in New Mexico, particularly when I’m out in the vegetable and herb garden. This morning a butterfly landed on my shoulder and I could hear its wings flapping!

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

TM: – I want to change the world. I want to see real justice and equality in my lifetime. I want to lift people up, deepen their experience, awake to the world around us. But this all starts with me first. Music is a process for me, of discovery, of the self and my place in the world. I continue to develop as a human as I develop as a musician. Inwards and outwards, like breathing.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

TM: – What would happen if you set the time machine for here and now? I think that is always the most interesting time to be alive. Or to be 18 in 1958…

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from you?

TM: – What do you hear when you close your ears?

JBN: – Thanks very much for answers. The silence …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

TM: – Perhaps any sense of control is an illusion. But I’ll do my best to keep surfing the extremes!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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